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Clint Black's guitar compadre confirms upcoming album and country radio dilemma

"Without being too blunt about it, the consensus is that once you’re over 50, forget it, country radio is just not going to put you on their current playlist." In an exclusive interview, Hayden Nicholas, Clint Black's right hand man on record and on stage, attempts to rationalize such a harsh decree from modern programmers.

Still crazy like a fox, Clint Black holds a National Steel Dobro used by Hayden Nicholas on the D'Lectrified tour as well as by Black himself for a rendition of Put Yourself in My Shoes on a 2013 acoustic tour; a publicity pic for the When I Said I Do LP
Still crazy like a fox, Clint Black holds a National Steel Dobro used by Hayden Nicholas, 2014; Photography by Russ Harrington
A gorgeous, sunny afternoon at the beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, spent reading "Ezekiel's Choice", the first novel by Hayden Nicholas exploring the story of a man’s spiritual redemption in the wake of a national tragedy
A sunny afternoon at the beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, spent reading "Ezekiel's Choice", the first novel by Hayden Nicholas exploring the story of a man’s spiritual redemption in the wake of a national tragedy; Photography by Johanna Johnson West

It is especially unfair considering that according to Billboard, Black tore up the charts with 32 Top 20 singles between 1989 and 2003. Nicholas co-wrote an astounding 21, and nine of those vaulted to number one status.

The ubiquitous "Summer's Comin'" singer melded '70s rock influences [e.g. The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac] with traditional country stalwarts such as Merle Haggard and Charley Pride. Black discovered a winning formula that shocked naysayers by yielding innumerable awards and paving the way for country's massive appeal in the new millennium.

Coincidentally, Black released his debut single, "A Better Man," one month prior to Garth Brooks' debut, "Much Too Young (To Feel This D--n Old)." While Black had the biggest hit record, Brooks ultimately claimed the lion's share of credit among critics for the country pop crossover phenomenon.

Black's most prolific songwriting partner by a considerable margin, Nicholas has coauthored somewhere in the neighborhood of 67 released compositions between 1989's Killin' Time and 2005's under-the-radar Drinkin' Songs & Other Logic. It's unclear exactly how many more have been recorded and relegated to the vaults since Black dumped RCA in 2002 and founded his own record label, the short-lived Equity Music Group.

In case you missed Part Two of Nicholas' interview, featuring an unforgettable reminiscence of meeting the gentleman who personified the essence of a genuine country and western vocalist, the inimitable Roy Rogers, then head on over to "Hold on Partner: The Day Clint Black Met the King of the Cowboys." Meanwhile, Nicholas settles back for a warts and all journey through his back pages of the past decade.

Nicholas reveals his admiration for Willie Nelson's recording technique, whether he would be irritated if RCA raided the vaults for a compilation, why he prefers having an outside producer in the studio, the impetus behind Black recording a recent album of sublime love ballads with Cracker Barrel entitled When I Said I Do, a soon to be released song called "The Last Day," written after the unexpected passing of Black's father, and shares a timetable for the black hatted-balladeer's 11th album comprised of original material, long clamored for by ardent fans.

Don't hesitate to visit Black's official website for complete tour dates. Nicholas' official Facebook is also accessible in case you wish to interact directly with the Houston songwriter, keep track of his latest activities, or watch vintage home movies and performance clips.

The Hayden Nicholas Interview, Part Three

Clint grew disillusioned with the major record labels in the early 2000s and decided to release music on his own label. Why did Equity Music Group ultimately fail?

There was a lot of tension that had been building up with the then-head of RCA. It got kind of nasty. It was really disheartening to witness all the infighting. I had to make a conscious decision to not let it be discouraging.

Clint took a big risk in establishing Equity. The longevity of independent record labels is never written in stone. The mortality rate is often high. Our debut on Equity was Spend My Time [March 2, 2004]. RCA strategically released a compilation of our past hits to piggyback on our new studio album. They did that twice in a row.

The first act signed to Equity was Little Big Town, who did quite well. It wasn’t enough to keep the label afloat because there was mismanagement going on. There’s still litigation. I don’t know a lot of the details. I try not to. I just want to keep my focus on the music. The business side of things can destroy you if you let it.

Is there much unreleased music from Clint’s classic RCA period (1989–2001)?

I’d say I could probably count our unreleased material on one hand. There were always a few songs recorded for each album that didn’t make the cut. It wasn’t because that particular song didn’t hold up, it was usually just due to the fact that we had a similar-sounding song already slated for the record. So they were left by the wayside.

If RCA raided the vaults for our outtakes, it wouldn’t really bother me…but I don’t think that would ever happen. When the settlement was done, Clint ended up getting his RCA catalog back. Of course, RCA still retains a piece of the catalog.

It’s been nearly a decade since Drinkin' Songs and Other Logic, the last Clint Black album of all new studio material, arrived with relatively little fanfare in 2005.

You know what? You’re right. It was an album featuring a couple of songs that we’d written a long time ago plus some newer ones. We returned to our roots and explored that avenue a little more.

I don’t know if many people have heard Drinkin’ Songs [laughs]. It was released on the fledgling Equity Records, and all that kinda went up in smoke. I’m not crazy about a lot of the production on it, although it was a very honest record. It was pretty much like us going in there and doing what we did in the old days – playing live. I like a lot of the songs on it.

You mentioned that you weren’t crazy about the production on Drinkin’ Songs. Would you prefer that a producer work with the band, or would you rather personally oversee an album?

I would rather have a producer simply because you have a whole other set of ears there. It’s hard to be objective after you’ve worked with a song for so long. You’ve spent months writing, rehearsing, and recording it.

You need the objectivity. You need somebody to look over the song(s) and admit, ‘Yeah, it’s great’ or ‘Maybe this isn’t so great.’ I think everyone needs that. It’s kind of like directing and starring in a movie simultaneously. It’s a lot to have on your plate.

I prefer to be produced when I’m in the studio recording – regardless of whomever I’m playing with. I like to ask, ‘Hey, do you like this?’ or ‘What do you want me to do?’ rather than me having to decide how to play it. I think a lot of musicians would have it that way.

We’ve worked with a lot of producers over the years, and we’ve done stuff that was basically self-produced. To tell you the truth – we had worked all the arrangements out beforehand on the Killin’ Time album.

The only thing that was changed when we actually went to a professional studio from the demo tape that we made in my garage was adding higher quality technology and sounds for the most part courtesy of James Stroud [Author’s Note: Black’s producer on all seven albums released between 1989 and 1997].

James called me after Killin’ Time won Album of the Year at the ACMs and remarked, “You should have received an award for that because all I really did was take what you guys had done and redid it” [laughs].

How long does it take you guys to record a song now? Is a lot of overdubbing involved?

It’s not really any different than it’s ever been. There isn’t much overdubbing involved. Let me tell you a quick story. A good friend of mine, Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, owns Bismeaux Studio, located in Austin, the city where I coincidentally live.

Willie Nelson always cuts his albums there. He and his band spend two or three days cutting a record, then they hit the road and promote it. Willie lets everybody else prepare the album for release. That older generation is used to doing that [laughs].

We’ll spend a little more time at it if something’s not working. Or we might invite a special guest to contribute. By the time you mix the album you’re looking at a project that really takes months.

We literally stopped writing and recording when Equity began experiencing problems. We haven't recorded a major album of original material since Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic so what happened is we ended up with a stockpile of material. Then you start to wonder whether the songs sound dated, since some were written almost 10 years ago [laughs].

Did you co-write any of the three new songs featured on the Cracker Barrel exclusive, When I Said I Do, with Clint?

No; here’s the deal. We’ve got probably 30 songs that we have finished and are ready to go. For various reasons – e.g. Clint was in between record labels – they haven’t been released.

The Cracker Barrel people came to Clint and suggested an album exploring his greatest hits, anchored by a strong love theme. We re-recorded 11 songs – “Like the Rain,” “One Emotion,” “Easy for Me to Say,” and “Half the Man” were co-written by me – while Clint brought three exclusive songs to the project written with other songwriters.

When I Said I Do was a one-time deal with Cracker Barrel [Aug. 5, 2013]. The restaurant chain’s label has been very successful for many artists including Clint. They’ve already put in a reorder so apparently the album has legs. We will promote When I Said I Do through the summer.

Hopefully by the end of the year we will have a new record of original material coming out. Then I will have some new songs to showcase.

Should Clint’s next studio album see release on a major record label, or would you prefer it be independent?

I can’t tell you exactly because I don’t think it’s finalized but the upcoming album will be with a major label. It may very well be a last attempt to get some radio promotion. If radio doesn’t pick up any of the songs as a single, we’ll know where we stand. If we need to refocus our approach to releasing records, then so be it. Hopefully we’ll have another chance. Who knows what may happen?

Have you been tempted to put out a solo album in order to showcase your stockpile of compositions?

I have no interest in pursuing a solo album. The first 10 years with Clint was akin to a whirlwind. I gradually pursued different forms of writing – dabbling in screenplays [i.e. a comedy based on a mutual friend co-written with Clint], fiction manuscripts [i.e. Hand’s Treasure] and writing my first novel, Ezekiel’s Choice [WestBow Press, 2013], a story of a man’s spiritual redemption in the wake of a national tragedy with a touch of the supernatural thrown in. What it all boils down to is that I have a special place in my heart for telling stories.

From the response I’ve been getting from Ezekiel’s Choice, it’s just been overwhelming. Lots of five-star reviews from everybody. Our immediate goal is to get enough momentum going where we can land a major book deal ensuring the book’s availability in stores such as Walmart. I'm focusing on that, my playing, and writing. You might say I’ve got my plate full right now [laughs].

What is a recent song that you have written with Clint?

“The Last Day” is a ballad basically saying, “I’m gonna live this day and everyday like it was the last day of my life.” I know it has a special place in Clint’s heart. About a week or two after we wrote “The Last Day,” his father passed away unexpectedly [Dec. 2, 2012]. It was a very tough time for Clint, and we didn’t touch the song for awhile.

When we went in and started finishing up some of the songs slated for the Cracker Barrel record, we recorded it properly. I think it’s gonna be real strong. Of course, you never know how a song will touch people, but “The Last Day” is full of emotion and something that everybody can relate to.

Would you like to see “The Last Day” released as a single?

Yes, I would. Without being too blunt about it, the consensus is that once you’re over 50, forget it, radio is just not going to put you on their current playlist. Programmers tell us, ‘You have a strong showing on the country classics chart, and you ought to be happy with that’ [laughs]. That’s the way radio is these days.

It reminds me when we were starting in the late ‘80s and heard the same type of thing about people like George Jones, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard having trouble getting played on the radio.

Of course, you also had many great younger country acts including Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, and Alabama. Chasing the demographic of youth has always been the thing since the record business has been established. Young girls are the largest audience.

There was something like over 4,000 country radio stations in the country, and ninety percent of those were individually owned – mom and pop stations. By the mid to late ‘90s, companies like Clear Channel went around buying all these radio and television stations. That’s when everything changed.

You no longer had the rapport with anybody. It was all corporate. It’s happened in everything having to do with the industry – promoters, record companies, bus companies, you name it. And it’s an epidemic that’s affected most every business in America. Walmart monopolized business instead of having the little individual mom and pop hardware stores.

It was harder staying in the game because we had relationships that we developed with these radio stations. New York City had one or two big major market country stations. When we first went to New York the first place we played was Carnegie Hall. Clint later sold out two shows at Radio City Music Hall. Our music was fresh to people. I don’t think Los Angeles even has a big major country station any longer. I feel really blessed that we were in when we were.

It would be great to be able to promote a single from the upcoming album – any single really. But if nothing else, we’re still out there. Clint has a great fan draw all around the country and in Canada, so we’re able to play at all these places.

Pop culture is definitely undergoing saturation overload.

You didn't have 300 channels and there was no Internet when we started. If you appeared on Johnny Carson or the early years of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, it seemed like everybody had seen your appearance by the following day. Nowadays you can do the gamut of New York TV shows such as Good Morning America or The Late Show with David Letterman and even some of your close friends are unaware you were on there. There’s a ton of distractions.

It’s hard for young acts to come up. They have to approach it totally different now than in our day. At that time it was about getting a demo tape together and then nabbing a record deal. Once you had a record deal, you had to cut a hit single [laughs].

You hoped for all those things to happen. Nowadays it’s really not that way. The labels are all in trouble. They have to have outside investment because they don’t have the money to promote new artists like they used to. They take a piece of everything.

Perhaps if “The Last Day” was introduced on the soundtrack of a popular television series, folks might have a greater likelihood of hearing it.

The advent of social media has created various new ways of doing things. Once you start thinking outside the box with the way the industry is now compared to what it used to be, there’s many ways to reach people.

Clint has been looking at it as if he has a last chance to get a major release and get back on the radio, then he’s going to give it all he can. If he can’t, he can always play shows and sell the CDs via social media.

It’s really about building and nurturing an audience, and keeping them in your corner. We’ve been really blessed to get to do what we want to do. I know I feel that way. Just to have a job that you enjoy doing. How valuable is that? I hear there’s a recent poll stating that approximately 70 percent of people in the United States hate their job. I think about how lucky I’ve been.

  • DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! Interested in more of the Hayden Nicholas interview? If so, the "Ezekiel's Choice" author began his stroll down memory lane in "Straight from the Factory with Clint Black's Songwriter Partner." He covers his initial meeting with the black-hatted troubadour, provides an honest assessment of Black's joking, albeit driven personality, reveals the secret to their lucrative 25-year songwriting arrangement, whether they will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the "Killin' Time" album, and the ongoing impact of the Beatles' influence on a Telecaster player from Houston. Don't miss it!

Twitter: To interact directly with Jeremy Roberts, follow @jeremylr

Further Reading: Have you thought about seeing Clint Black in person, but for one reason or another, you haven't gotten around to doing so? Then check out the following detailed review of this supremely talented country artist in concert: "Spendin' a Little Time in Concert with a Country Troubadour". In a remarkable achievement, Black's debut single, "A Better Man", went all the way to No. 1 in 1989. Raised in Houston, the songwriter continued to rule the charts throughout the subsequent decade, giving Garth Brooks a fine run for his money with enduring compositions such as "Like the Rain", "When I Said I Do", and "Nothin' But the Taillights".

Exclusive Interview: One of my proudest moments as a working journalist was getting to spend an hour conversing with American treasure Merle Haggard about his storied career. In "Still Holding His Mud: A Day in the Life of 'Struggling' Guitarist Merle Haggard," the ink slinger waxes nostalgic about learning to play both the fiddle and guitar as a poor but blessed nine-year-old Bakersfield kid in the aftermath of World War II, if he still has those crucial instruments gathering dust in a closet somewhere, raising a Fender Telecaster maestro at the dawn of the 21st century, actually receiving inspiration for a song while sauntering towards a London concert stage, his patented songwriting formula, losing anonymity, and whether stage fright can be conquered.

Exclusive Interview No. 2: Ray Stevens has scored dozens of hit singles on the country and pop charts in a 50-year recording career. His best-loved recordings, often humorous in nature, include the Grammy-winning "Everything Is Beautiful", "Mr. Businessman", “Gitarzan,” "Turn Your Radio On," “The Streak,” “Misty,” and “Shriner’s Convention." An interview ["From Atlanta to Nashville's Music Row..."] with Stevens' partner in rhyme, Buddy Kalb, offers a glimpse into the notoriously press shy Kalb's enormous songwriting contributions to Stevens' oeuvre. The author of 150-plus Stevens compositions, spearheaded by "Mississippi Squirrel Revival," Kalb met Stevens in Atlanta during the late '50s as both were struggling artists working under legendary record impresario Bill Lowery. Lowery encouraged Kalb to emulate the Big Bopper, one of the artists on the doomed flight that claimed Buddy Holly. Although the far-fetched idea failed, Kalb's green pasture was just around the corner...

  • Exclusive Interview No. 3: "Garden Party" songwriter Rick Nelson was on the verge of a mini comeback when his plane tragically caught on fire en route to a New Year's Eve gig on Dec. 31, 1985. A rockabilly-themed album was in the final recording stages, and the singer had found a new record label in Nashville named Curb Records. Unfortunately, the project was promptly placed in the dustbin whilst various figureheads argued over rights and whether Nelson's vocals were satisfactory. Wrangling beyond the so-called myths revolving around the project, an in-depth feature ["Rick Nelson's Manager Reveals Whether Legend's Final Album Will See a Release"] sheds light on the ill-fated Curb sessions 30 years later.

Exclusive Interview No. 4: John Denver will forever be remembered as the consummate singer-songwriter. The radio friendly, environmentally conscious entertainer possesses an incredible body of work with such landmark recordings as "Sunshine on My Shoulders," "Back Home Again," "Rocky Mountain High," "Annie's Song," and "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," all staples of early '70s AM radio. Denver's final pianist, Chris Nole, recently agreed to revisit his memorable relationship with the singer on the commemoration of his 70th birthday. Stick around as Nole discusses how he came to join Denver's band, what it was like to have a single rehearsal and then debut in front of thousands of fans, Denver's homespun sense of humor, whether the singer had any pre-show superstitions, their final conversation, and much more.

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© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2014. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Headlines with links are fine. In addition, posting any links to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated.

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